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Reporting Shouldn't "Normalize" The Abnormal; Donald Trump's New Anti-Media Talking Point; Here's What Everyone Gets Wrong About Trust In Media; Defining 'Democratic Decline'; Why Are Mark Zuckerberg & Sheryl Sandberg M.I.A.? Aired 11a-12p ET

Aired October 10, 2021 - 11:00   ET



BRIAN STELTER, CNN ANCHOR: Hey, I'm Brian Stelter, live in Washington today, and this is RELIABLE SOURCES. Here, we examine the story behind the story and try to figure out what's reliable.

This hour, a new and urgent warning about democracy in decline. Hear from the head of a group called Freedom House about how to turn things around.

Plus, Facebook's PR drive is in overdrive right now, trying to counteract the whistle-blower's damning claims. Is it working?

And later, with Ozy Media's collapse now national news, did Carlos Watson dupe NBC? What's going on there?

All of that, plus Stephanie Grisham's confessions and much more.

But, first, here's a new take on an old slogan. One of the battle cries of the Trump era was, this is not normal. Well, it's still true right now in the Biden era, but the media is guilty of normalizing some of the abhorrent, abnormal, sometimes destructive behavior happening on Capitol Hill and beyond.

Think about the coverage of the debt ceiling in the past week. It's been more like a hostage taking, right? But look at the language they get to use in a news report. Both sides digging in, at an impasse, standoff, and then somehow it's magically resolved. There's a sigh of relief.

This is not normal. And sticking with D.C. examples, this week, we saw even more evidence the riot denialism is practically a GOP requirement, an entire media apparatus is committed to minimizing and memory holing the attack at the Capitol building. You don't see this video on Fox or Newsmax.

And what about the Trump confidantes that are refusing to obey subpoenas from the 1/6 select committee? When that's portrayed as a standoff, or just -- you know, like a normal legal battle, the point is missed and normalizing is a result.

As Bill Maher remarked the other night, the slow-moving coup is still moving, the storm clouds still gathering. So, this is still not normal. But often, the media treats some of these events as if they are.

Joining me around the table here to discuss that and President Biden and so much more, James Fallows, author of the seminal media criticism book "Breaking the News," now that's the title of his Substack. Check it out at

Also with me, "Axios" media reporter, Sara Fischer, Yahoo White House correspondent Brittany Shepherd, and veteran media critic, David Zurawik, professor of media studies at Goucher College.

Welcome, everyone. Great to have you all here.

Normalizing is our first word, Jim. You've been writing about this on your Substack, several times a week, trying to chronicle how the debt limit has been covered.

Just simply put, what's the media gotten wrong in this story?

JAMES FALLOWS, AUTHOR, "BREAKING THE NEWS" ON SUBSTACK: The main problem is the one you laid out so clearly in the introduction. There's something happening that is not normal, that is a threat. It's not the normal political negotiation. It's not the kind of disagreement we might have over immigration policy or dealing with China or anything like that.

It's an outright threat to the welfare of the country, an extreme example of some countries saying we're going to dump anthrax in the water supply unless you do x, y or z. You know, that is a threat. This is not a public health threat, but it's a threat that can have real economic implications.

But the tendency of the media is to produce -- is to present all of these things in the ways we're familiar with, as a standoff, as a negotiation, a chess game, as who is going to blink, who is canny, et cetera, et cetera? So I think there was a time until the recent agreement to hold us off for two months until the press would say this isn't normal, this isn't negotiations, using the filibuster to renege on the credit of the United States is not a normal disagreement.


FALLOWS: But after the sigh of relief, there's been some backsliding again.

STELTER: Brittany, you live this every day. You're writing about this. Do you see some of that in the coverage as well?

BRITTANY SHEPHERD, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, YAHOO: I'm certainly guilty of this sin. I mean, let's be honest, it's hard to get readers to care about debt negotiations. It's not sexy.


SHEPHERD: It's not interesting.

STELTER: Sure. SHEPHERD: And I'm not saying it's a justification, but after the Trump administration, we're kind of so hungry for views and for eyeballs, we have to gum up anything that happens in a way that can be interesting.

I unfortunately think the truth of the situation is collateral -- it's collateral damage because we're there every day really trying to get news out of the Biden White House and, frankly, it can be very difficult. They often don't give us a lot to work with.

But our readers are the ones who suffer and our coverage is because we end up playing this game like politico mad lib where you can trade my byline with someone else's byline and it's essentially the same story.

STELTER: One of the phrase that I always hear these, of course, Dems in disarray, it's a meme, it's a joke, but it's also said seriously all the time. the Democrats are in disarray.

Is it more accurate to say, it's Congress is disarray? Congress is failing?

SHEPHERD: Absolutely. And when we say Dms are in disarray, it gives like political game chips to both people, right? It allows someone like Manchin and Sinema to go to the White House and have all this unbridled power because it becomes an Aaron Sorkin power play or people making jokes about "Veep" in the briefing room and I'm in the big like needing Advil, because I still don't have a tolerance for it anymore.


But you're actually able to change the shape of what actual negotiations are when we use the phrase like Dems are in disarray, and we don't just say, why is the Congress working this --

FALLOWS: And just one brief comment here, Congress in disarray, but Congress is made to be in disarray by one group of Congress people, by -- by the Republicans are saying we're going to use the threat of a filibuster with our minority to hold up this crucial thing for the world's economy. So, it's in disarray but it's caused disarray, rather than just a naturally occurring phenomenon.

STELTER: But if we leave out the cause, then we're missing this story. We're missing this story.


STELTER: President Biden I believe delivered media criticism Friday. Let's play the sound bite and then you all can decide.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Right now, things in Washington, as you all know, are awfully noisy. Turn on the news and every conversation is a confrontation. Every disagreement is a crisis.

(END VIDEO CLIP) STELTER: Factually speaking, it's right there. You've studied this, what works in politics, everything is portrayed as an emergency, even when it's not.

SARA FISCHER, MEDIA REPORTER, AXIOS: It is but I think the comments are a little hypocritical. In one sense, Joe Biden will say everything is a fight. And in another where there's complaints Senator Sinema's being followed in the bathroom, that's just the way it goes when you're in this business.

So, shouldn't it be that that's the way that it goes. You know how to deal with the news media, as he points to. His job is figure out how to get through that clutter to get a deal done.

And I would argue, yes, the media can be harder on some places, could be easy on others but it's his challenge to navigate. It's not our challenge to figure out how to make to make it easier for him.

DAVE ZURAWIK, PROFESSOR OF MEDIA STUDIES, GOUCHER COLLEGE: Well, you know, I never heard a president who's a good media critic. Whenever they start criticizing the media, A, they're in trouble and B, they don't know what to call -- even Obama. Obama was the worst media critic. I love some things Obama did, but when he played media critic, it was bad.

And it's kind of disingenuous for Biden to be saying that when he's the guy with the uber narrative he's given us is battle for the soul of America. Yeah, okay, that's intense, that's good. I agree with that. So don't say we're hyping it. If we're in the battle for the soul of America, you can't hype that. That's the battle.

STELTER: That's interesting.

ZURAWIK: And he's actually right about that, he's actually right about this. All of this going on, Brian, we talked about a couple weeks ago in another context, the danger is this move towards autocracy and the way the Republican Party has bought into it and the way they are shutting down Congress and doing all of these things to bring Trump back in 2024 and they get the midterms in 2022.

We are at this dangerous point and the crisis is how do we communicate this to the American people? When they were talking about the debt ceiling, I thought -- I live in the city of Baltimore, and I thought my neighbors, I act like they're elder but I'm young. They're on Social Security. I said wait until your Social Security check doesn't come, then you'll know what's going on here.

So that's the real feeling. I don't like Biden playing media critic but, you know, he's going to do it. Presidents do it.

STELTER: Presidents do it. But, Jim, the idea Biden says every conversation becomes a confrontation. There is some truth to that concern. I'm sure he's watching and getting frustrated by the coverage of the D.C. budget battle. There is some truth to that.

FALLOWS: True. This is a complex situation. No president should ever talk publicly about the media because they're all, despite partisan differences, they're united against the media. So we have to be quiet about it.

The struggle for all in the media if we keep pointing out one side of the political divide is actually instigating these things, defying subpoenas, trying to renege on the debt, holding up State Department, et cetera, we're conscience of seeming shrilled and unbalanced and conscience of taking a side. So it's something about our culture, we need to figure out how we can give out a narrative of the actual realities recognizing this is at odds of our conventions.

STELTER: I see --

ZURAWIK: Amen, yes. That's great. Yeah.

STELTER: I want to ask you, do you feel the good news of COVID is being underreported now? The message from Biden is about vaccine mandates and progress. Is that being -- is the good news about COVID not getting enough attention?

FISCHER: I think the COVID message continues to be really muddled.

STELTER: Muddled?

FISCHER: First of all, the Biden administration is conflicted towards what they're going to do in terms of booster shots. CDC and scientists are saying one thing, promised to follow the science, and yet came out ahead of the science saying we're giving out boosters.

So, even when there's good news to be told, the American people doesn't trust this administration any more than it trusts the Trump administration to listen to it.


That's the real problem here. So I think the COVID message from the Biden administration right now is not much more clear than it was in the last administration and that's a problem for them.

STELTER: He keeps making a mistake, by the way, Biden keeps making a mistake about Fox's vaccine mandate, that they require vaccines. They require vaccines or daily testing, which is a lot more rigorous than what the Biden administration poses for companies.

But he keeps getting these facts around repeatedly and that needs to be called out, he doesn't have it quite right about Fox. At the same time, these are -- you know, if Trump was committing lie felonies, what Biden commit a misdemeanor, is that a fair difference?

SHEPHERD: I think that's a very judicious way to put it. It's not just about booster shots. It's about there are lots and lots -- tens of thousands of Americans who are not getting vaccinated. So for all of the good news, the White House is back to how do we get these people vaccinated? We tried. We gave them money, we gave them gifts, we gave them air time. We're giving states all of these lotteries. But nothing is stopping them, besides -- FALLOWS: Except mandates.

STELTER: Except mandates, yes.

SHEPHERD: Except watching people die on television.


SHEPHERD: I think that's why us as the press, reporters, how do I cover this to get to my voters and readers to quietly get them to understand what's going on saying, well, so and so didn't get the vaccine and so and so is dyeing on camera. It's how the government trying to get people to stop smoking, we're trying to do the same thing with vaccination awareness.


SHEPHERD: And that's why for all the wins and progress that we're getting, about rates, about transmission --

STELTER: Right, declining cases. When I say good news, declining cases. Delta, the wave is fading. But you're right, death toll is still astonishing.

FALLOWS: A specific illustration to me, about two weeks ago, one of our major papers had headline stories, 600 people fired from the airlines for no mandates, et cetera. The next day, our other major paper said, 99 percent of employees, all these big companies, are obeying mandates. So, I think the news is a small percent of people are defying, 90 plus percent of people, when companies imposed mandates are complying.

STELTER: Right. I do want to briefly show the tone, the framing on Fox News and primetime. Some of the banners, we have the banners on screens that Fox runs about vaccines. This is not -- they're not saying literally, don't take the vaccine but they have appointed liberals to promote vaccines.

They're essentially, David, prolonging the pandemic by being so aggressively, deeply skeptical, oppositional. Look at that, authoritarianism of vaccine mandates. The tone every single day is to be anti-Biden on these things.

ZURAWIK: Brian, it's not real to them. It's like it's a game. They're playing for viewership, okay? They've got a core that listens to this and wants to hear this apparently and that they're re-enforcing. But how do you live with yourself when you know what you're doing in the media can cause deaths for people? How do you live with it?

I don't understand that. I do not. There are a lot of sins we have, and I will confess to some of them as a journalist, but I don't know how people in right wing media, with the science we have out there and with all of the videos and all of the personal tragedies we have witnessed of people dyeing, you can go and do anti-vax stuff on television. It's not a game. You walk out on the street, you're part of the

community. You're part of this country. You're part of the global community, and you're contributing to killing people. That's unconscionable.

There's no forgiveness. There is no forgiveness for these people. Cash your checks? No. You're helping to kill people. Think of that tomorrow when you go in before the cameras.

STELTER: I think you're probably going to make an appearance on Tucker Carlson's show tonight. But that's the way he won't ever answer your questions directly, he will just attack.


STELTER: All right. Everybody, stand by for lots more, everybody's coming back later in the hour. I want to tell you about the newest talking points coming out of Trump world against the press and what it actually means. We're going to speak with a reporter who was at the rally last night. She's just getting off the plane. She's back.



STELTER: Donald Trump has a new talking point about press bashing and it's about a tax incentive for imperiled local newspapers. Yes, the Democrats' big budget bill offers tax credits for publishers in a good faith attempt to help newsrooms survive. But right wing media outlets have been thrashing the idea and now Trump is as well.


DONALD TRUMP, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The Democrats' socialist bill also includes a $1.3 billion payoff to the fake news industry. These people -- we're giving them money.


STELTER: Again, it's for local outlets. It's trying to prop up papers that are otherwise going to die. You would think that wouldn't be controversial but it is.

Trump's rally was full of rage against the usual suspects. No surprise, "Politico" national political correspondent Meridith McGraw spotted a man in the crowd with a T-shirt repeating one of Trump's favorite smears, that is the media is the enemy of the people.

McGraw was in Iowa last night. She's here at the table now and joined by Olivia Nuzzi, the Washington correspondent for "New York Magazine", and David Zurawik back with us as well.

So, Meridith, you're right off the plane. Tell us about the rally. You know, I'm always curious what it's like for reporters to be in the press pen, right, which is at times a hostile crowd. What was it like last night? MERIDITH MCGRAW, NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, POLITICO: Last

night the former president spent a lot of time attacking the Biden administration on everything from immigration to his handling of the Afghanistan withdrawal, but really a bulk of what he talked about was his claims that he won the election in 2020 and that's something when I talked to over a dozen supporters who were there, they kept repeating that same claim.

But I will say in terms of being in the press pen, there's such a difference between being out in the crowd and talking to these supporters face to face and interviewing them versus when you're in that pen area and the former president is making attacks on the press and sort of egging the crowd on.


STELTER: Totally. He made a comment which we said before which is the thing I get the most cheers for is when I talk about fraud and the election. Is that actually true, is that what the crowd enjoys the most is the lies about the election?

MCGRAW: Well, it's certainly something that they believe. One thing that I found just talking to some of his supporters there was that they want to talk about the economy, they want to talk about their communities, they want to talk about immigration, the borders, some of the coverage that they've seen there. They also brought up this feeling of censorship and not being seen by the media as well, which I thought was interesting.

But in terms of cheers from the crowd, yes, that is something that his supporters care about as well. But I sometimes wonder if he is overestimating just how much that's important to him.

STELTER: I love the point Jonathan Martin made on twitter over the weekend, last night, there's a lot of Republicans that support Donald Trump but do not want him to run again, you know? They want to celebrate him, they want to thank him, they don't want to see him run again.

I think that's related to the cheers or lack of cheers for the voter fraud claims. We talk about the Trump party which is real and it's true, but it's not as if the entire base is begging him to run 2024. Some of them are there just to see the show when they go to the rallies.

MCGRAW: Right, and that's something that I thought was interesting. Obviously at these rallies, these are die-hard supporters.


MCGRAW: But when I was talking to some of the, you know, top political operatives in the state, one of them, he says, as you're seeing people like Mike Pence or Senator Ted Cruz come through the state, is that there are a lot of Iowans who are keeping an eye on other only 2024 candidates and what they might have to offer and he said the biggest question that people might need to ask, including Trump himself, is if he would be the guy to win in 2024.

STELTER: Right. Meanwhile we keep learning about 2020. And, Olivia, you're out with a new profile by Stephanie Grisham and the headline is striking. She says, I was part of something unusually evil. Of all the interviews she's giving this week, she's been doing a lot of press and confessing to her sins in the Trump White House. It was striking to hear her use the word evil.

What was the context for what she said? You flew out to Kansas to see her. So, maybe, she really opened up to you.



NUZZI: I did. I flew to Kansas, and I spent sometime with her there. She was commuting in secret for much of the last year of the Trump administration from Washington, D.C. where she maintained her high- level position back to Kansas where she purchased a house.

So I think it was maybe something about being in that setting, somewhere she kind of found refuge over the past year that made her open up. But like a lot of reporters, I've known her for several years now covering the Trump administration, the Trump campaign.

So, I was struck though by her willingness to get that deep and to be that reflective and be that difficult -- that hard on herself, because even thought there -- we've seen a lot of memoirs, it's an entire genre, if you worked for Donald Trump, you're probably going to get an offer to betray him and write a book.

And yet I haven't seen that level of introspection yet, even in the rudest, meanest takedowns that have been written.


NUZZI: So I was surprised by it, but I also thought it was shrewd. I don't think that alto of people are -- I think she's aware that people are not going to be welcoming her with open arms into the liberal media after she spent six years working for someone who called us the enemy of the people and helping to craft statements that misled us or attacked us.

And so, I think this is a smart move in some ways, you know, to kind of get a chance at being understood by the people she's been working against for several years.

STELTER: She also admitted among her confessions is that she would go on Fox and tell untruths and they didn't seem to mind. We can run a lot of examples that she was on Fox and not going on other networks since she rarely took questions and never held a briefing.

But she would give these TV interviews and she admitted there was nonsense being spewed. I wonder if any of that matter? In other words, does it permeate the

kind of alternative reality or other bucket of American media that includes Fox?

NUZZI: It's her argument.

STELTER: But Grisham told you about working for somebody evil, that's not going to permeate Sean Hannity's world.

NUZZI: Her bet is that there exist persuaded people that -- like she was, maybe worked there a long time or maybe supported the president a long time, but like her, they are open to changing their minds or succumbing to a realization even at a late date that was at odds with how they've acted or how they've -- what they believed in the past.


NUZZI: I don't know if that's true but if it was true, whether it was for strategic, shrewd business reasons or it was a genuine change of heart, she was persuadable in the end and she did change her mind.

STELTER: Right, right.

Now from Trump to Vice President Pence, I was blown away by his interview on Sean Hannity's show where he said, you know, the media is trying to make a big deal out of one day in January -- which is one of the worst days in my lifetime in this country.


I just drove by the Capitol on my way here with my 4-year-old because she's never seen Washington. To be able to see her looking up at the Capitol and to think about what could have happened that day, it's sickening, David.

And yet, you've the former vice president who could have been killed that day, could have been murdered -- I'm not saying it's the media's fault for caring about the riot.

ZURAWIK: That may be the great -- I was complaining in the prior segment about the presidents playing media critics, him criticizing the media for the way we are covering January 6th is like exponentially worse.

Brian, it blew my mind. There was a gallows out there and they were chanting "hang Pence."

STELTER: I know. But you know what's amazing? Hannity -- the interview happened on "Hannity" show. Fox didn't even mention it afterwards.

So, Pence went out there, made that crazy comment, and then Fox didn't mention it. So, when -- not only did they downplay the riot, they downplay who are downplaying the riot. They just won't talk about the crimes that day.

ZURAWIK: Fox -- it's astonishing what Fox does. It really is astonishing that they can go with it.

Brian, the larger story of democracy under siege right now, that is the defining moment. If you appreciate the horror of that day and how far outside of norm, it's not even -- you can't even conceive it so far outside normal, that people would storm the Capitol, that they would --

STELTER: And it's the media's fault for caring. Media's fault for caring.

ZURAWIK: But if you want to know about the power Trump still has over this Republican Party, Pence doing this, doing this torture dance now is evident.

STELTER: Olivia, are we wrong?

NUZZI: I don't think so. Sorry, I was so -- that was so fascinating, I forgot I was on television.

I mean, if you think that members of the press that we hate ourselves, I mean, what is more masochistic than defending the people who we're threatening to hang that day. I think it's almost to the point of parody with Mike Pence that someone can be so -- expressing such fealty and being so self-loathing and being downplaying people threatening to kill him.

STELTER: And amazing thing happens on live TV, and then Fox never talks about it again as if it didn't happen. This was the most interesting thing that happened in your interview and you're ignoring it.

All right. Thank you all. Appreciate it. We talk all day.

Next up -- the one thing everyone is getting wrong about trust in media. My report card on some truly RELIABLE SOURCES, next.



STELTER: Whenever anyone asked me about trust in media, I try to ask, what do they mean by media because everyone is a member of the media now? The media includes The New York Times and also a no-name blogger.

So, let me propose to a different way to think about trusted media. Reporters versus repeaters. This brand new research by Gallup says American trust in the mass media is at its lowest point since 2016, and near a record-low overall.

To think about it, almost everyone trusts some form of media, everyone trusts something. It's just that many people trust CNN and many others trust Fox, even though we're not really two sides of the same coin.

So, it's obvious that when pollsters ask about the media as a whole, the results are abysmal, and that is a large part due to Republican sentiment. Do you see on your screen here? So, you see these lines diverge over time, the blue line much, much higher than the red line.

Republican trust in mass media is at rock bottom lows, and yet, Fox's ratings are high and Fox stars are beloved, so there is trust there. But that chiasm, that Canyon between Democrats and Republicans is critical to understand.

Democrats say they generally trust mainline news sources, Republicans say they do not. The space between them is Grand Canyon-sized.

And as Matt Gertz of the Liberal Media Matters noted, the thing about that partisan skew is that it means that negative press coverage is much more damaging to Democrats whose voters will believe it, and less damaging to Republicans whose voters generally won't believe it. It's an interesting point. But the even bigger point, I think, is about what the press is.

What's the nutritional value of the content? Is it produced by reporters or by repeaters? So, at the risk of repeating myself a little bit, OK, repeaters are the talk radio shouters who tell listeners to hate the other side. They're on TV and radio telling the same story every day.

Repeaters are outlets like One America News which replays Donald Trump's lies on a loop and runs random news packages made by other companies. Repeaters are all over Facebook in hyper-partisan private groups that cherry-pick stories and conversational (ph) memes and make you really rageful. Repeaters are Twitter trolls who anonymously amplify propaganda and try to wear the rest of us down with their repetition.

And so much of what they are repeating, so much of the raw material for radio yakkers, and Facebook posters, and all the rest is from reporters, from the people pay to figure out what is true, not what they might want to be true, but what is true.

And here's the important part, OK? There are easy ways to tell the difference between the two, between reporters and repeaters. CNN for example, has news bureaus all around the world, all over the place, all the red dots. That's a lot of reporting power.

Fox, just to show the contrast, has very few bureaus by comparison. They only have reporters in a couple of international locations. So, Fox does a lot less reporting, and a lot more repeating. But this isn't about ideology or anything, it's about a type of content, Fox and Friends got it all wrong today.



RACHEL CAMPOS-DUFFY, CO-HOST, FOX NEWS AND FRIENDS: Did you wish you had a dime for every time somebody said to you, what would happen to America if we didn't have vaccines? I mean, we'd have no alternative information at all. I mean, just think about that.

(END VIDEO CLIP) STELTER: It's not about alternative information. It's about whether media outlets are spending the money to staff the bureaus and send out troops and sort out fact from fiction. It's about repeating versus reporting. Fox and Friends does almost nothing but repeat.

So, pollster is posing broad questions about the media, doesn't really tell us a lot. The same is true with misinformation. This is a new poll from AP in New York showing 81 percent of Americans say misinformation is a major problem. But I suspect that's because everyone distrusts some form of media.

It's the converse to what I said earlier. Everyone trusts some sources, but they distrust other sources. They see that stuff as misinformation. So, thus, everyone thinks there's a big misinformation problem because they don't believe the other version.

If there's a solution to this, and I don't know if there is because we live in one American two media worlds, but if there is a solution, it's through reporting. It's through reporting not repeating, it's through doing the work and showing the work and showing how it happens every day.

And it's also through asking some hard questions about why is it the right-wing media outlets do so little reporting? Why do they employ so few reporters, and so many commentators and columnists, and opinion writers?

Why aren't their massive American newsrooms dedicated to journalism from a conservative point of view, a reality-based conservative point of view?

Why isn't there a New York Times of the right? Why doesn't that exist? Is it because the audience doesn't want that? Or is it because the audience isn't beginning of a chance -- doesn't being given a chance to support it?

Why is it that so much of the noise and nonsense that comes out of pro-Trump outlets is repetition -- is repeating, not reporting? Those are complicated questions, but they need to be asked.

In the meantime, all of us need to see the difference between reporting and repeating because reporting adds value, and repeating often subtracts value.

Now, I don't want to repeat myself anymore so let's move on to the next block. We have an important guest coming up talking about the storm clouds that clearly threaten American democracy. What can the news media do to stem democratic decline? We're going to talk with the head of Freedom House in just a moment.



STELTER: They call it democratic decline, and it's happening here in the United States and in many parts of the world. It's sometimes defined as a gradual decline in the quality of democracy. If unchecked, democratic backsliding results in the state losing its democratic qualities, becoming an autocracy or authoritarian regime.

Democratic decline, doesn't happen all at once, it doesn't happen on a single day, it's backsliding. So, how does it happen? And how can small-d-democratic media -- what can media outlets do to preserve my rights, your rights, and all of our rights?

With me now is Michael Abramowitz. He's the president of the Freedom House, a nonprofit group that advocates for democracy. Great to see you, thanks for coming in.


STELTER: What is the evidence of a democratic decline in the United States in recent years?

ABRAMOWITZ: Well, first of all, let me say Freedom House has been tracking the decline of democracy for almost 50 years. And the big story globally is that it's been -- it increased in the first part of those 35 years, the last 15 years, we've seen rising authoritarianism.

More countries every year, declining in respect for political rights and civil liberties, and improvement, and the United States is part of that global story.

STELTER: And that's partly a President Trump's story, but it continues with Trump out of office.

ABRAMOWITZ: President Trump was certainly an accelerant to that, but I believe it's something that crosses all administrations. We've seen -- we've actually tracked democratic decline for about 10 years, then we rate countries on a global scale of zero to 100, and the United States has fallen from roughly 94 to 83 for about 10 years.

STELTER: Yes, we've been losing the score. What do you want to see the CNN's of the world do to change that?

ABRAMOWITZ: Well, the first -- the most important thing that I think of, I often think of my -- Marty Baron, the former Editor of The Washington Post, who when he was asked, like, what can the media do? Do their job.

As the Nobel Prize committee recognized this week, you know, democracy is a cornerstone -- I'm sorry, journalism -- independent journalism is the cornerstone of democracy. And without it, you can't have accountability for power.

So, I think the most important thing that journalists can do is really hold the powerful to account, report fairly, report the facts, really based on facts. I like your books --

STELTER: But do we need to raise our voices more loudly? Because look, you know, we -- you can't have a free press without democracy. You can't -- you know, we don't have a First Amendment without a democratic system.

ABRAMOWITZ: I totally agree with that. And I think that the media is, in terms of the editorial pages, opinion pieces, you see a lot more commentary on this subject.

STELTER: That's true, yes.

ABRAMOWITZ: But I fundamentally believe that it's the fact-based journalism, the focus on facts that is really the way out for us in reporting.

STELTER: You all have a record out this fall about a freedom on the net, but it documents of declining amount of freedom for people using the internet in many countries. How does that relate to this conversation?

ABRAMOWITZ: Well, the internet is the way we all get our information these days, and so we have Chronicle for the last 11 years, a different study, we've done, declining political rights, greater censorship, greater disinformation being peddled online.

The thing we're most concerned about, in our last report, is the fact that authoritarian countries, they're really the biggest threats to democracy. Countries like Russia and China.

China in particular, which is the worst violator of internet -- of internet rights, they are forcing American companies like Google and Apple to censor, to surveil. You saw that with the forcing Google and Apple to take down the Navalny, the app, in during the elections --

STELTER: In Russia.

ABRAMOWITZ: -- in Russia.


ABRAMOWITZ: So, that's a great concern. And sadly, the companies acquiesced to that.


STELTER: Is there a bit of -- so those big, big story that's been called the Pandora papers, hundreds of news outlets around the world working together to bring to light corruption among international elites, alleged crimes, but also a lot of what's just legal but shady in terms of offshore tax-havens.

Is that kind of reporting -- that kind of transparency, a massive leak of data and documents, is that a win for democracy because it brings more information out into the world? And are we going to see more and more of that?

ABRAMOWITZ: That was an amazing piece of investigative journalism. It's absolutely a win for democracy. The Achilles heel for autocrats is corruption. What is Putin most scared about? He's scared about exposing the billions that he and his cronies have squirreled away around the world. So, the more that the press can do this kind of reporting, the better it is for democracy.

STELTER: Right. Get all of it out into the sunlight.

ABRAMOWITZ: Absolutely.

STELTER: Mike, thanks for being here.

ABRAMOWITZ: Thanks for having me, Brian.

STELTER: After the break, Facebook and what is going on with Mark Zuckerberg? Where is he? We're going to get into all that and much more in a moment.



STELTER: Back on RELIABLE SOURCES. Talking about a staggeringly bad week for Facebook, the company doing a PR Blitz today, sending out a spokesman on three Sunday shows trying to defend the company saying, it's doing all the right things. But there are a lot of skeptics and you can even see it in the company's stock price.

Back with me now, here at the table, James fallows, and Brittany Shepherd, Sara Fischer, and David Zurawik.

Sara, you covered media for Axios, you've been tracking this scandal, is this one different from all the other Facebook scandals?

FISCHER: It's definitely different, Brian. First of all, the whistleblower has shown up with receipts, caught Facebook very flat- footed. If you notice, as you said, their top policy executive is blanketing Sunday shows. That never happens.

STELTER: What's the point?

FISCHER: The other thing is that the stock is still weighed down, about 15 percent from its all-time high in early September. That matters, Brian because in my five years covering this company, I never see the stock take a prolonged dip like that in response to this sort of political news.

Sometimes investors get a little bit scurrilous when they see a business change. But this is a reputational change that's causing a material impact on its business, Brian. I've never seen anything like it for Facebook.

STELTER: Wow. Frontpage of The Washington Post today, Big Tobacco. These comparisons keep coming up. But Jim, the article points out if that is the right comparison, it means Facebook's going to have a real advantage for a long time. The -- Big Tobacco was able to stall for years and years and years for decades. FALLOWS: Yes. And there is a history of these things as you pointed out last week. And raising the comparison with Big Tobacco, there are sort of two forces of change the regulation, I think will happen to Facebook.

One is the government. I think we've seen the inevitable beginning of that with the hearings last while the whistleblower testimony. The other is corporate governance. Facebook as unusual on having more one- person rule than any other company have similar impact that I can think of.

And so, I think we're going to be seeing in the corporate world, investors and others saying, is it prudent to have one person in his 30s to have so much unquestioned influence over an institution like this?

STELTER: David Zurawik, is it prudent?

ZURAWIK: It is. Oh, it isn't. And you know, remember the 2016 election when we found out that the Russians were sowing discord in cities like Baltimore, and Zuckerberg said, oh, that's ridiculous that they would have an impact, they would have been meddling in our election. They paid in rubles, and it didn't raise any -- I mean, this guy has been beating these things off for four years.

Part of it is I think Congress doesn't want to regulate, they're afraid to regulate, they don't really understand something of this stature. I totally agree about this is different. I couldn't -- I couldn't agree with you more. I think you have the tobacco, and you have adolescence -- body image issues being raised.

STELTER: Being raised. Yes.

ZURAWIK: Literally hurting people again. And --

STELTER: Well, the question is whether Facebook will change on its own it --

ZURAWIK: It will not.

STELTER: -- or whether they will be forced to change?

ZURAWIK: It will not. But do think about this Congress regulating, think about the 30s, when the Communication Act was written versus this Congress today. That's really frightening too because we don't have people on Capitol Hill who can regulate it.

STELTER: So, in our final minute, we talked about Ozy Media last week, this facade of a media company seems to be somewhat of a sham, but Carlos Watson was out this week claiming he's coming back.

He was on the Today Show, claiming he is coming back, and then six days later, I see no tweets on the account, no Instagram posts, what's going on with Ozy, Sara? You've been covering this for a long time.

FISCHER: Well, they're not really back. I mean, they brought back a few newsletters that hit my inbox, but to my knowledge is very few employees that have agreed to go back to produce the content. So, that's one of the big problems.

The other big problem here is that there's totally a trust gap now between every single stakeholder Ozy would have to work with to get its company back up and running and Ozy.

Nobody trusts Carl Watson at this point to run ads in that publication, nobody wants to be investing in that publication, employees don't all want to be coming back.

So, how do you bring back a company if you're really can, if you don't have anyone that's going to work with you to do it? You can't do it alone.

STELTER: That's actually going to do it. Brittany, you read these stories about Ozy, and it reminded you of other toxic workplaces, what was your takeaway?


SHEPHERD: Well, I worked in startups before and I feel like when you bring that tech industry move of -- move fast and break things to the newsroom, that really -- the thing that you really break is the employee's stamina --

STELTER: The thing you break is the employees. What do you mean?

SHEPHERD: Yes, you really -- the employees and to be able to like translate news and map it into DC.

STELTER: So, that maybe is one of the takeaways from Ozy?

SHEPHERD: Oh, absolutely, that it's -- really hurts the journalists at the end of the day.

STELTER: Right. And at the end of the day, these things go up in flames mop possibly, and it's the journalists who suffer. All right everybody, thank you very much for the conversation, check out our podcast as well.

This week on the RELIABLE SOURCES podcast, Jeff Horwitz, one of the reporters in the Wall Street Journal who is responsible for the Facebook files. We will see you at this time next week for more RELIABLE SOURCES.